Somewhere along the way, BlackBerry lost its cool. RIM hopes the PlayBook can steal it back. The company's 7-inch answer to the iPad 2 features a whole new operating system that's tailor-made for multitasking and chock-full of nifty gestures. A zippy dual-core processor and dual cameras that capture full HD video make the PlayBook a pint-size powerhouse on paper.This tablet is also affordable.The Wi-Fi only version starts at $499 (for 16GB), and 4G versions of the PlayBook will start rolling out this summer.So how well do the software and hardware work together? How good are the apps? And do you really need a BlackBerry phone to get the most out of this slate? Our in-depth review has all the answers.
Sleek and minimalist, the BlackBerry PlayBook feels good in your hands thanks to a soft-touch backside. Measuring 7.6 x 5.1 x 0.4 inches, RIM's slate is a hair thinner than the original Samsung Galaxy Tab but is an ounce and a half heavier (14.9 vs 13.4 ounces). Regardless, the PlayBook was comfortable to hold during longer stretches of web surfing and gaming. Unlike the 1.3-pound iPad 2, this tablet is also compact enough to slip into a jacket pocket or purse.
The front side of the PlayBook has an enlarged bezel that surrounds the 7-inch display, which is used for performing various gestures (more on those below). You'll find the front-facing 3-megpaixel camera above the screen, along with a notification LED. Two speakers flank the left and right sides of the display.
The top of the PlayBook houses a recessed power button that's a little bit of a challenge to activate. To the right of that button are narrow volume controls with a Play/Pause button in the middle. A headphone jack is on the top right edge.
A microUSB, microHDMI, and charging contacts for an optional charging dock line the bottom of the PlayBook. You can also charge the PlayBook with your notebook via the included USB cable. The 5-MP camera sits above the silver BlackBerry logo on the back.
Display and Audio
One of the better screens we've seen on a tablet, the 7-inch LCD on the PlayBook has a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels. Colors really pop, text looks sharp, and viewing angles are wider than on the muddier Motorola Xoom. When viewed side by side, the PlayBook's panel appeared slightly brighter (and warmer) than the Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Don't let the small speaker grilles on the front of the PlayBook fool you. This tablet produced booming audio when we played some Silversun Pickups tracks using the built-in media player. When we fired up the Slacker app and streamed Florence and the Machine's "Dog Days Are Over," the audio was just as impressive. At least for smaller rooms, you won't need a speaker dock.
BlackBerry Tablet OS
The BlackBerry Tablet OS is a fresh new platform leveraging two key acquisitions: QNX (for its reliability and Flash support) and TAT (for its interface expertise). Together, these ingredients create an environment that's optimized for multitasking. The UI is strikingly similar to HP's webOS, but we're not complaining.
When you turn the PlayBook on, you'll see an App List along the bottom of the screen. You can expand it by either swiping up or tapping on the Up arrow (similar to the BlackBerry 6 OS on the Torch). The center of the home screen gets populated with thumbnail views of apps as you open them. You can then swipe through this carousel and tap on the app you want, or press the little X below the thumbnail to close it. (You can also swipe up on an app to whisk it away.)
At any time, you can get back to the main screen by swiping up from the bottom of the display frame. You don't have to go back to the main screen to switch between apps, either: You can just swipe sideways from the frame to jump from, say, YouTube to the browser. The software is even smart enough to automatically pause video playback.
When you're in an app, you swipe down from the top of the PlayBook's frame to see related options. For example, when you swipe down in the Music app, you'll see Albums, Artists, Genres, and Playlist. Last but not least, you can swipe diagonally down from the top left side of the frame to sneak a peek at your battery life, notifications, and other items in the Status Bar.
Add all of these gestures up, and it sounds like the PlayBook is confusing to operate, but we found the tablet pretty easy to use once we got the workflow down. There is a powerful elegance here.
Syncing, Working with Files
When connected to your PC via USB, you can either drag and drop files to the PlayBook or use RIM's BlackBerry Desktop Software. While it's somewhat slower to sync, we liked the clean interface of the Media Sync option, which let us check off music artists to bring over to the tablet (complete with album art).
You can also wirelessly sync files by turning on the PlayBook's Wi-Fi Sharing feature under options. We got this to work, but only after enabling the Network Sharing feature on our PC. Also, keep in mind that the PlayBook doesn't sync automatically over Wi-Fi (like doubleTwist for Android). You have to manually transfer files in this mode.
One thing we really like about the PlayBook is that there's a PC-like file system under the hood. That means we could upload photos directly from the tablet to Facebook when visiting the site. We just selected the option to browse our hard drive, then chose what pictures to share. You can also easily download files (such as a Word doc attachment we received via Gmail) to the PlayBook.
As you might expect, the keyboard on the PlayBook is fast and accurate. We could really fly with our thumbs when using the device in portrait mode. We also like the reassuring clicking sound with adjustable volume. You don't get haptic feedback, but we can live without it. The keyboard lacks secondary keys and the ability to long-press a letter to enter a number or character. You'll need to press the Symbol key to toggle back and forth.
Specs and Performance
With a 1-GHz dual-core processor from TI (the OMAP4430) and 1GB of RAM under the hood, the PlayBook certainly has the specs to stand toe to toe with the iPad 2 and other tablets. We streamed a 1080p video to a 32-inch TV while surfing the web on the PlayBook at the same time without seeing any lag. Swiping from app to app was also fairly smooth, though the accelerometer took longer than we'd like to switch the display's orientation when flipping the device around.
Unfortunately, we found the PlayBook to be flaky at times, with some applications randomly closing. At other times the tablet displayed a "low on memory message" that encouraged us to close apps, though this didn't happen after a software update. We also had to reset the device multiple times because it froze on us. We hope (and assume) that the PlayBook will get more stable as more software updates roll out.
Web Browsing and Flash
RIM likes to say that the PlayBook's web surfing experience is uncompromising. To some extent, that's accurate. The browser supports Flash, so you can access some sites which the iPad 2 just can't load. The PlayBook also offers tabs, so you can quickly switch between open pages.
This Wi-Fi-only tablet maintained connections to home and office networks fairly well, but it wouldn't connect to an iPhone 4's personal hotspot. The PlayBook also kept disconnecting from a Samsung 4G Mobile hotspot device, even though the iPad 2 stayed on.
The PlayBook consistently loaded pages a second or two slower than the iPad 2. However, the PlayBook isn't a slowpoke: It loaded the full desktop version of ESPN.com in 12 seconds and CNN.com in 11 seconds.
To test out Flash, we first watched The Daily Show on Hulu. (Yes, Hulu works, for now.) Playback looked smooth even at full screen. Then we watched an episode of Wild Kratts on PBS Kids with our daughter, which taught us both a lot about the octopus. While we enjoyed the experience overall, the browser would sometimes interpret scrolling as clicking. We also couldn't play one Flash game because it required the use of arrow keys, which the PlayBook obviously doesn't have.
If you feel like Flash is slowing you down, you can disable it in Settings.
BlackBerry Bridge (E-mail, Calendar, and More)
Imagine if you had to tether your iPhone to your iPad to use the e-mail app. That scenario sums up why BlackBerry Bridge is the PlayBook's most controversial feature. The Bridge app allows BlackBerry phone owners (OS 5.0 and up) to connect via Bluetooth to access BlackBerry calendar, contacts, e-mail, memos, tasks, and BlackBerry Messenger on the tablet. When your BlackBerry phone isn't connected, all of these apps--and the data they contain--disappear. Security-minded IT types might appreciate this approach, but most consumers will be left scratching their heads.
Here's how it works: We downloaded the BlackBerry Bridge app to our BlackBerry Torch smart phone, then paired the device with the PlayBook using Bluetooth. The next step is to go to the BlackBerry Bridge option under Settings on the tablet to connect. After you're connected, you'll see a BlackBerry Bridge tab show up on the main menu, under which you'll find Calendar, Contacts, Messages, MemoPad, Tasks, and Bridge Browser (for surfing the web using the phone as a modem).
The Messages app presents a dual-pane view in portrait mode with a list of messages on the left and the contents of each e-mail on the right. While the app worked, it was slow to load, which just reminded us that we were connecting to a phone. Attachment support wasn't yet activated on our preview build of BlackBerry Bridge, but we assume it's coming. We also noticed some lag (in the form of a spinning circle) when loading the Calendar and Contacts apps. The BlackBerry Bridge Browser was slow to load pages over AT&T's 3G network, taking about 14 seconds to bring up NYTimes.com but over a minute to finish.
RIM says it will be releasing native e-mail, contacts, and calendar clients as part of a free over-the-air update this summer, and we suspect a lot of buyers will wait until then.
Of course, you could always use web-based e-mail. That's why the PlayBook comes with prominent shortcut icons for AOL Mail, Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail. We tried Gmail and found scrolling through the inbox to be less smooth than on a dedicated app. However, we were able to download and view attachments using the included copy of Documents to Go Premium.
RIM says that more than 3,000 apps have been submitted so far to BlackBerry App World, and there are some pretty heavy-hitting developers and publishers backing the platform. These include Adobe, Atari, EA, eBay, Evernote, Fortune, Gameloft, Huffington Post, Mattel, Salesforce.com, Slacker, Sports Illustrated, Time, and The Weather Channel.
We had a blast playing EA's Need for Speed Undercover, using the PlayBook as a steering wheel to tear around city streets. You also get the full version of Tetris. Between games, you can view and edit Excel, PowerPoint, and Word documents using the free bundled version of Docs to Go. We also like the Weather app, powered by AccuWeather.com. Bing Maps offers local search and directions, but it doesn't offer spoken directions like Google Maps. Other "apps," however, are just shortcuts to web pages, such as Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter.
BlackBerry App World has a similar look and feel to the store you'll find on RIM's smart phones. While the selection will likely improve, we weren't impressed with the depth or quality of third-party apps during our testing. Take iRok2, a Rock Band clone. We could easily tell that this title was just a lazy Adobe Air port of something you can play online. The dead giveaway? The big "Press Space Bar to Pause During Game" message at the bottom of the screen. We also tried TweeKL, a lame Twitter client with low-res graphics. We couldn't even click on web links in updates.
RIM says that it's working hard to court developers to create apps using Adobe Air, Webworks (web apps), and its native SDK, but we'd say there's still a lot of work to be done. RIM promises to roll out an Android Player later this year that will enable users to run Google's OS as an app, which you'll be able to use to download additional apps. We're not sure it will be worth the trouble; you'll only be able to download smart phone apps.
Camera and Camcorder
We don't expect a lot out of tablet cameras, but the PlayBook captured some of the best-looking videos we've seen yet. Using the rear-facing camera (5 megapixels), we recorded a detailed and stutter-free 1080p clip of New York City traffic. The footage looked crisp both on the PlayBook's screen and on a 32-inch HDTV. Indoor videos looked grainier.
Still shots we took with the back camera looked fine, but the PlayBook was slow to fire, and the camera lacks a flash. There's a handful of options for shooting stills, including aspect ratio, digital zoom, stabilization, and sports and whiteboard modes (if you don't want to use auto).
In both photo mode and video mode, you can switch from the back to the front (3-MP) camera, which can also handle 1080p video. It's too bad you can't use the front camera for video chat yet, because it offered a very bright picture.
Music, Books, and Video
When it comes to premium video on the PlayBook, you're kind of own your own. There's a basic-looking YouTube player, and Hulu works (at least for the moment), but you won't find a download store for movies or TV shows a la iTunes.
RIM picks up the slack in the music department with a built-in music store powered by 7digital. We like that the interface mirrors that of the PlayBook, complete with scrolling album art thumbnails across the middle of the screen. Album prices range from $5 to $14.99, and it looks like most of the major artists are here, from Britney Spears to R.E.M. You'll need to create a 7digital account to make purchases.
RIM bundles a Kobo app for buying and reading eBooks, which has a clean interface that shows your downloads on a virtual book shelf. The store is easy to navigate as well, with a Top 50 list that's front and center. Page turns are quick, and you can dog-ear pages, change the font style and size, and even engage Night Mode (which makes the text white and the background dark).
After running the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via Wi-Fi) for 3 hours and 53 minutes, the PlayBook was down to 51-percent battery life. Based on that kind of endurance, users should expect about 8 hours of runtime. That's pretty good, but the iPad 2 lasted over three hours longer (11:11), and the Samsung Galaxy Tab lasted 9 hours over Wi-Fi.
RIM bundles the PlayBook with a nice form-fitting neoprene sleeve to protect the tablet, plus a folding power adapter, a microUSB cable, and a polishing cloth. We also tried out a charging dock ($69.99), which supplies juice to the PlayBook but oddly doesn't include USB or microHDMI outputs. Other optional accessories include three types of sleeves (neoprene, $29.99; foam, $29.99; and leather, $49.99), a soft shell with slip-resistant protection ($39.99), and a slip case with a durable exterior ($39.99).
It's not really a matter of too little, too late with the BlackBery PlayBook. If anything, RIM's first tablet feels as if it was rushed to market. The PlayBook has a well-designed interface and plenty of power under the hood for serious multitasking. The sharp screen, high-quality cameras, and loud speakers all impress as well. However, the software was buggy during testing, there's no video chat option yet, and App World just doesn't have a lot of compelling options right now. Combine these issues with the need to tether a BlackBerry phone to get native mail, calendar, and BlackBerry Messenger, and it's difficult to recommend this tablet in its current form. Assuming RIM can work out the kinks--and the app selection improves--we'll warm up to the PlayBook more.